Jessie Buckley: 'If you work hard then you don't have to worry about anyone's preconception of what you were before'
Jessie Buckley is the TV talent show runner-up who charmed James Norton when they met filming War and Peace. Now she's delivered a stand-out performance opposite Tom Hardy in drama Taboo. Ellen E Jones meets a rising star
It's that time of year again: when payday seems a lifetime away, when the Dry January brigade are already sniffing Tipp-Ex fumes in desperation and - thank God - when Irish actress Jessie Buckley is giving the stand-out performance in a bar-raising new BBC One period drama.
Last January she was Princess Marya Bolkonskaya in the impassioned adaptation of Tolstoy's War and Peace. "Oh God! The crier! The religion-obsessed one!" Buckley says now with a laugh and a cringe. "I must shake that!" That isn't really a fair assessment of the quiet poise with which she invested the tricky role, but if typecasting is the worry, then this year's must-see will sort that out.
In Taboo, which starts tomorrow night, Buckley plays a very different sort of 19th-century heroine, actress and adventuress Lorna Bow. "She's such a force and she's got such strength and intelligence," says Buckley. "She's like a Lauren Bacall of the 1800s."
The Gothic-tinged, hard-edged drama should already be occupying the top spot on your 2017 TV watchlist because alongside Buckley it stars Tom Hardy at his most Hardy-esque. He plays a brooding prodigal son with a dislike for authority and a wide lexicon of grunts to draw on whenever he finds himself confronting it. This performance should be no surprise, given that Hardy also co-wrote the series with Stephen 'Peaky Blinders' Knight and his father Chips Hardy.
The supporting cast is worth getting excited about too: Jonathan Pryce plays a scheming representative of the East India Company, House of Cards' Michael Kelley is an American spy, Mark Gatiss is the dissolute Prince Regent and a heavily tattooed Stephen Graham almost menaces Hardy off the screen.
The real-life Tom is "a big teddy bear", according to Buckley. "He loves his dogs and, y'know, he's intense about his work, but that's because he cares about it." She does though admit to being intimidated the first time they met at his house in Richmond, where she'd been invited to an informal audition. "You try to con yourself into feeling OK, when inside your heart's racing. But he was so nice. He was having boiled eggs with his wife and his dogs were running around. We just read through the scenes a few times and then they offered it to me."
That's a much simpler audition process than the 10-week one Buckley endured at the beginning of her career. She entered I'll Do Anything, the 2008 reality TV competition to find a Nancy for the West End revival of Oliver! and eventually came second.
It's hard to reconcile this Jessie Buckley - a self-assured, exciting new acting talent - with that one, a wide-eyed 17-year-old, all Annie curls and earnest enthusiasm, who you can find in old YouTube clips.
"Oh God, it feels like 100 years ago! I think there was a time when I looked back and was like (she cringes) but now I feel proud. I was so innocent about what that programme was. Which was probably why I got so far… But yeah, no regrets. It brought me over to London and singing is a part of who I am."
Buckley grew up in Killarney, Co Kerry, the eldest of five siblings, in a house without a television set. Music was an important part of her life from childhood and Buckley still sings with her jazz band any chance that she gets.
Instead of name-dropping her contemporaries she sprinkles her conversation with admiring references to Judy Garland and other stars of Hollywood's Golden Age of musicals. So while her career may have taken a turn towards hip and edgy - with an upcoming role in indie thriller Beast - it's clear that Buckley will never stop loving a good old-fashioned showstopper. And she doesn't care who knows it. "I was saying this morning that I'd do a musical again if it was interesting. Never say never. I love singing."
The secret of her success might be how she shrugs off snobbery and simply refuses to acknowledge any barriers between her and her goals. "I think if you work hard then you don't have to worry about anybody's preconception of what you were before," she says.
It's an outlook she shares with her Taboo character, who sets out to secure a living for herself regardless of society's disapproval of her professional ambitions. "I like a challenge and I don't ever really feel aware of those things. I get asked a lot about being a woman within the industry and how difficult it is and, yeah, it is - but it's difficult for everybody… I'm not a 'burn-your-bra' feminist. The people who are inspiring and strong for me are the ones who acknowledge vulnerabilities."
Lately she's been reading Grayson Perry's The Descent of Man and it's reminded her of what she's felt instinctively since she was a schoolgirl playing the male roles in her class's theatre productions: there are no gender restrictions on empathy. "Even for posh boys as well, it's hard for them, because they're typecast and don't get to play some other interesting roles."
Perhaps the particular posh boy she's thinking of here is privately educated Cambridge graduate James Norton, who she describes as "brilliant" with a loved-up smile. Norton is the star of Grantchester and Happy Valley and has been her boyfriend since they met on the set of War and Peace (he played her character's brother).
He's also in the frame to be the next James Bond. Does Buckley think he'd make a good 007? "I think I'd make a good James Bond… I'm joking. No, it's not my call. That's up to him."
Maybe that's a joke, but maybe it shouldn't be. If anyone has the determination to overcome an audience's long-standing assumptions, Buckley does. She lets slip occasional insights into the sacrifices she's made along the way to follow her calling. "I had to be an adult very quickly and didn't have any friends. I didn't go down the pub and hang out. I went away to a music school when I was 12 and then I came over here when I was 17."
But fundamentally Jessie Buckley is not a whinger. Her optimism could light a path through even this gloomiest of months. And, of course, a great new BBC drama with innovative writing and a world-class cast is always something to look forward to.
Taboo, Saturday, BBC1, 9.15pm